Whisper Aero emerged from stealth a little over two years ago with a straightforward (if ambitious) plan: to radically reduce noise emissions from next-gen aircraft with a never-been-done-before electric thruster.
But according to Whisper COO Ian Villa, from the very beginning, the company was thinking more expansively. The startup was founded by Villa and CEO Mark Moore, both former executives at Uber’s aerial ridesharing project Elevate. Early on, the two founders had a hunch that the electric propulsor could be scaled down for products outside the aviation industry.
Like, say, lawn care.
“If we showed you our seed round deck, we had a leaf blower in it,” Villa said in a recent interview. “We’ve always known leaf blowers would be on the path. The real question was when.”
The answer to that question is “now.” Today, Whisper has unveiled “Whisper Drive,” a scaled-down electric ducted fan that can be integrated into leaf blowers, commercial drones or other consumer products. The company says that a Whisper Drive-enabled leaf blower can be up to 40x quieter at 50 feet than its competitors, effectively turning a neighborhood nuisance into a barely perceptible hush.
The result is a leaf blower that emits just 45 decibels of noise at 50 feet and full throttle. In comparison, gas leaf blowers emit between 70-90 decibels of sound at the same condition, while the quietest electric leaf blowers on the market emit around 57-59 decibels.
Whisper engineers started playing around with the concept for a quiet leaf blower after the company had already developed and flown an early-generation 10-pound thruster for a demonstrator drone. Using some 3D-printed parts and spare batteries, they modified the propulsor into a leaf blower MVP.
“We were blown away,” Villa said, likely not intending to make such a good pun. “It was just insane how magically quiet it was. We looked at the numbers and we said, ‘Okay, we know how much thrust this produces.’ […] And it dawned on us, not only was it quiet, but it has to be moving more air than an equivalent handheld leaf blower.”
Whisper set up the very same testing rigs that outdoor power equipment vendors use, so they’ve been able to do direct comparisons between a Whisper Drive-enabled blower and blowers available for purchase. Whisper engineers have also been able to subject the blower to aviation-grade testing, which has allowed them to measure thrust and noise to a highly precise degree, Villa said.
While the company was able to prove tremendous noise reduction with just a prototype, it wasn’t consumer-friendly in terms of costs, so Whisper had to think seriously about how to scale manufacturing up and drive costs down.
“The leaf blower was a way to tackle that in a product-aligned way, where we can perform these experiments, come up with something that we knew the public wanted, but then also solve [the question of] how are we going to make these thrusters cheap enough for commercial drones. To us it was a win-win.”
The biggest way the company’s been able to bring costs down is via an injection molding technique using low-cost materials. The most expensive part of the leaf blower is the battery, and Villa said that Whisper Drive’s improved efficiency will generate longer run times and decreased battery weight.
Leaf blowers may seem relatively low tech — blow air, move leaves — but this is exactly why they’re such a prime product to target, Whisper says. More and more communities have enacted usage restrictions on leaf blowers due to the noise, which is bad news for lawncare workers, especially those that live in hot areas and may not be able to start work during the coolest parts of the day. Depending on use, workers may also be required under federal law to wear hearing protection. Whisper Drive-enabled leaf blowers would make noise restrictions irrelevant and hearing protection unnecessary.
To be clear, Whisper is not building a leaf blower (just the propulsor), but the company is already in talks with a few potential partners to bring the ultra-quiet blower to the market. Villa said the company’s goal is to lock in a partnership toward the end of this year or beginning of next year, so that the blower can be available for purchase by 2025 or sooner.
The new product is part of Whisper’s broader strategy to bring in early revenue and diversify its portfolio — going after high-thrust defense and commercial aviation on one end, to lower-thrust products like leaf blowers or commercial drones on the other.
“We have a significant portion of the team working on high thrust, we also have a significant portion of the team are working on low thrust,” Villa said. “Really, they’re synergistic.”
A quieter, more efficient and affordable electric leaf blower may even be the final nudge in turning the lawncare industry — which has historically relied on gas-powered machinery — greener. While the percentage of the electric lawn equipment market has been rapidly growing, especially amongst individual consumers, it’s still not the majority.
“A lot of landscapers have already gotten on the bandwagon,” Villa said. “When you look at the dollars and look at the economics of it, just like how electric aviation has favorable economics to some alternatives, the same thing is true in the landscaping space. The trouble is, you have these favorable economics, but there’s limitations. To break through those limitations in terms of run time, in terms of performance, in terms of noise, you need enabling technology.”
“This Whisper Drive that we’re able to use in a leaf blower application, is that key enabler.”